The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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General Assembly of the UN (GA)

Established under Chapter IV of the UN Charter, the General Assembly (GA) is the plenary body of the UN—the main organ for discussion and voting. All Member States are represented at the General Assembly, under the principle of universal democracy, whereby all States are equal and respect the equal rights of all peoples. Each Member State therefore has one vote (Art. 18.1 of the UN Charter).

Functions and Powers of the GA

The GA has multiple responsibilities. First, it has a general mandate over the entire sphere of activity of the organization (Art. 10 of the UN Charter). It shares certain duties with other UN organs, such as the Security Council, with which it shares the responsibility of “discuss[ing] any questions relating to the maintenance of international peace and security” (Art. 11). On these matters, however, it must give priority to the Security Council’s specific functions and powers: the GA may not undertake any action or make any recommendation regarding a dispute or situation that is being dealt with by the Security Council (Art. 12).

The GA’s powers make it the main organ for discussion within the UN. It receives reports from other UN organs (Art. 15); studies the general principles of cooperation in the maintenance of peace, particularly those concerning disarmament; promotes the development of international cooperation in the political, economic, social, and cultural fields and in human rights protection (Art. 13); and contributes to the development of international law. Finally, its most significant function concerns financial and budgetary matters. Each year, the GA votes on the UN’s overall budget (Art. 17.1).

To accomplish its mission, the UN has a biannual regular budget, made up of membership fees divided among the Member States in proportion to their national income. The budget adopted for the biennium 2012–2013 amounts to $5.15 billion. The main assessed contributors are the United States (22 percent), Japan (16.62 percent), Germany (8.58 percent), the United Kingdom (6.64 percent), France (6.3 percent), Italy (5 percent), and Canada (3 percent).

In addition to the regular budget, there are several special funds and budgets, consisting of voluntary or mandatory contributions. These are designated for Specialized Agencies to implement specific actions. The GA does not control these funds, but it does examine the administrative budgets and makes recommendations to the specialized agencies concerned (Art. 17.3).

A number of important countries do not pay their dues regularly. As of February 2011, eighteen Member States were in arrears under the terms of Article 19 of the Charter of the UN, which states that “a member of the United Nations which is in arrears in the payment of its financial contributions to the Organization shall have no vote in the General Assembly if the amount of its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years. The General Assembly may, nevertheless, permit such a Member to vote if it is satisfied that the failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the Member.” Much of this debt consists of the United States’ unpaid arrears, which added up to $1.561 billion in 2010.

According to the UN Charter, a Member State that does not pay its dues for more than two years “shall have no vote in the General Assembly,” unless the GA authorizes it because it is “satisfied that the failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the member” (Art. 19). Given the severe financial difficulties the UN has faced in the past several years, the Secretary-General often uses the threat of a suspension of voting rights with the defaulting countries, which are led by the United States.

Voting Procedure

The GA meets annually in regular plenary session, where it adopts resolutions that have received a majority of votes of those present and voting. The vote must be carried by a two-thirds majority for important questions, which include recommendations concerning the maintenance of international peace and security, the election of non-permanent members of the Security Council, the admission of new Member States to the UN, and budgetary questions (Art. 18.2).

The nature of a given resolution adopted by the GA determines whether it is binding on Member States:

  • Binding decisions: The GA may only make decisions binding on States in the following domains: approval of the UN’s regular budget, election of non-permanent members of the Security Council, election of the members of the Economic and Social Council, admission of new Member States, and the suspension or expulsion of current members.
  • Recommendations: GA resolutions concerning any other issues have only the strength of recommendations, and they can be adopted by a simple majority vote. However, to give more authority to these recommendations, these texts are often adopted by consensus, without a formal vote. A text submitted for adoption represents a careful compromise reached by the international community of States, which no one would risk upsetting by openly contesting it (if no one is opposed to a text, it means that everyone is in favor of it). The president of the session simply notes the absence of any objection on the part of a State or group of States on consideration of the text. This method generates significant amounts of preparatory work at the level of the GA’s specialized committees and subcommittees.

Soft law

The General Assembly’s Structure

While the GA is not meeting, the UN’s work is carried out under the aegis of six main committees:

1st Committee: disarmament and international security

2nd Committee: economic and financial

3rd Committee: social, humanitarian, and cultural

4th Committee: special political and decolonization

5th Committee: administrative and budgetary

6th Committee: legal

These committees are subdivided into subcommittees, which act as working groups on specific questions and appoint experts and Special Rapporteurs. This creates a very complex organizational chart, but this is necessary given the range of issues covered and their technicality. The common use of the system of consensus voting implies that the organization’s committees are expected to spend considerable time preparing and drafting texts that will be acceptable to all.

Economic and Social CouncilInternational Court of JusticeSecretariat of the UNSecurity Council of the UNUnited Nations

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